’tis the season…

As we approach Black Friday (the day after American Thanksgiving, known for blowout sales, much like Boxing Day here in Canada), millions of North Americans’ thoughts turn to the coming holidays.

What is the first thing you think about when someone mentions the holidays? Is it the snow that’s likely to fall? Is it the list of memories you have from holidays past, shared with loved ones? Is it the list of people you are excited to spend time with this year? Likely not, but it should be. In the 21st century, most people, when thinking of the holidays, think immediately of the gift shopping they *need* to do.

It’s all around us. Commercials on the radio, on TV, and on banner ads on every conceivable website you visit tout the number of shopping days until Christmas, 33 today according to daysuntil.com. (Only 10 days until Chanukah!) Tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of dollars are spent reminding you of this most important deadline. Only a tiny fraction of that amount is spent in advertisements promoting the other, non-commercial, personal side of the holidays.

(6 years ago, I spent 3 hours watching the Quebec Parliament channel because I was touched by the personal recorded messages from parliamentarians from all political stripes. None mentioned gifts.)

Why is it important? Why do we give gifts? (not only for holidays, by the way, but for birthdays and other “designated” occasions too…)

Well, above all, this answer is personal – or at least that’s what most people will have others believe. In my heart, I believe that some people are genuinely generous. These people want only to share their good fortune, with no expectation of receiving gifts in return. Consider that this is a (very) small portion of the population.

Most people, I believe, give gifts because it has become a societal obligation of sorts. Years of effective marketing have created a false connection between the holidays and gift giving, and consequently between gift giving and love, or caring, or thoughtfulness. What is thoughtful about buying a gift because you are expected to? Or worse, because you don’t want to deal with the consequences of not buying one?

One very common trait in people is a desire to look good or avoid looking bad. It is easy to see how this trait comes into play when considering what kind of gift to buy, or whether to buy at all. It is all too common, when gift shopping, to consider what other people may likely buy for you in order to target a similar price range. Why? Only to look good or avoid looking bad in their eyes.

If you’re calling me cynical (or any similar adjective) right now, ask yourself where the term “Hallmark holiday” came from. How many people believe that they have “celebrated” Mother’s or Father’s Day simply as a result of sending a card? It’s an easy way out. Rather than making an effort to arrange schedules to be with loved ones in person, “I’ll just send a card” tells the story. Effective and relentless marketing has linked giving greeting cards with caring about someone. It’s an absolutely fabricated connection that we actually bought! This connection, created solely for profit and greed, has made Hallmark OVER $4.4 BILLION a year in sales. According to the “Greeting Card Association” (greetingcard.org), annual revenue from greeting card sales, annually, in the United States alone was OVER $7.5 BILLION.

And for what? A card that you look at once and then throw away, or keep and watch it collect dust and take up space, never to be seen again? The Hall family and others are laughing at us all the way to the bank.

(Imagine what would be possible if we took that $2 – $4 per greeting card and used it to buy food for the poor? to pay for beds in a homeless shelter? Or build a brand new shelter… )

While makers of greeting cards and non-essential consumer goods reap the benefits of our selfish desire for acceptance through gifts, many are suffering. One would hope that families who are struggling to put proper food on their table or pay for adequate and comfortable shelter would focus on these priorities before worrying about what gift to buy, but I would bet that this is sadly not the case for some. I know, though, that one of the major impacts of gift giving and receiving is, unfortunately, resentment. It comes from when someone expects to receive something that is not given, when they perceive that the value of their gift exceeds the value of the gift that was received, or when someone projects their own interpretation of the thought (or lack thereof) that went into a gift-giving decision. The result is often hard feelings, a form of upset that goes against the true spirit of the holidays. Anger that can last long beyond the batteries in your new video game.

Make no mistake. I am not, for a second, suggesting that these companies are at fault for personal problems in the home. I am a proud capitalist. I believe that our system works when innovative people come up with great ideas, execute them in original ways, promote them, sell them, and earn money to support their families.

However, more than my belief in capitalism is my belief in the utmost importance of personal choice and personal responsibility. We create our tomorrows by way of our actions today. By focusing so much on the “importance of gifts” and by falsely making gift-giving *mean* something about the giver, we are creating a future based more on material goods than on what’s important – quality time spent with those around us, fostering interpersonal relationships, actually getting to know people on a deep level. If we put more time and effort into what we are going to buy for someone than we do in making time to spend with that person, learn about that person, relate to that person, and nurture that person, then we are absolutely missing the point – as well as a huge opportunity.

This holiday season, may your thoughts be focused on the value you spend in minutes rather than the value you spend in dollars.

It took lots of out-of-the-box thinking to create the consumerist madness we are now experiencing, and it will take a tremendous amount of courage make the choices that we need to make to return our society to a place where caring is shown by spending time together, not by buying things. I invite everyone to do their part, to start now.

If, like me, you find yourself *stuck* in actions that don’t correspond to your morals and values, even if they go against common thought in 2010, listen to the wise words of Dr. Seuss:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Please accept my wish for the happiest and healthiest of holidays spent together with those who mean the most to you.

(Oh, and go out and give gifts if you choose to – but give “out of nothing”. Give because you were thinking about someone and saw something they would love. Give because you saw something neat and thought of someone special. Give without any expectations and without any fear of judgement. Give because you’re inspired by giving.)